Is there any sympathy to be had for Shaquan Duley, who the New York Times says has admitted to smothering her 18-month-old and 2-year-old sons with her bare hands before letting her car roll into a lake with their bodies inside to hide her crime? Speaking in that stilted press conference lingo, the local sherriff said, baldly, “She was a mother that was unemployed. She had no way of taking care of her children.” Was she a struggling woman in a struggling community, where even in 2000, a quarter of the population lived below the poverty line and the average family wasn’t doing much better? But the sherriff continued. “She was fed up with her mother telling her that she couldn’t take care of the children or wasn’t taking care of the children. She just wanted to be free.”
Desperate, unemployed, and without anywhere to turn, or fed up and ready to be free? Susan Smith (accused of drowning her kids rather than giving her ex-husband custody so that she would be wholly free for another man) or Andrea Yates (diagnosed with mental illness, poorly treated, left alone by a husband who many felt had ample opportunity to help her or prevent her actions)? Murderer, or murderous victim of circumstance?
Will we want to know? Our fascination with the cases of Smith and Yates wasn’t necessarily pretty; it’s been called prurient, voyeuristic, and a whole host of other unpleasant names, but it was real. Throughout the investigations, throughout the trials, the media fed our interest. We were enthralled by their motives even as we were replused by their actions, and we didn’t just watch; we argued, reasoned, compared. We examined ourselves, as a society, to see what those murders said about us. We considered the lives of those children and their promise, cut off. Will we do the same with the case of Shaquan Duley?
Here’s a hint: Have you ever heard of Banita Jacks? She was convicted of killing her four daughters in 2009. It was a horrible crime: The girls’ bodies were found decomposing in Jacks’ home months after their death. But there were no Law and Order episodes “based on a true story” about Jacks, no films, no songs referencing the case. Like Duley, Jacks was a black, single, unemployed mother of many, on public assistance and depending on the help of others to get by. Jacks was already on the outskirts of much of society, and her case was relegated to the outskirts as well. If the same can be said of Duley-if a year from now, we’ve forgotten her name-our collective lack of interest will suggest an ugly truth about where our societal attention lies. Too often, when it comes to mothers and children struggling on the margins, we’ve already written them off. As neighbor Ramona Milhouse said as she watched Duley’s car being pulled from the water, “It’s such a sad story.”